Many would not expect a prediction of aviation’s future on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, but there it was on January 23. The guest, Missy Cummings, one of the Navy’s first female F-18 drivers and now an association professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, said within five or 10 years that FedEx and UPS would be carrying packages with unmanned aerial vehicles.
Watching the extended Cummings interview online, she supported this possibility with the accurate observations that airliners flying today are UAVs whose pilots push buttons and program the flight management system from the cockpit rather than some strip-mall cubicle. And this plays right into a previous post about the FAA SAFO urging pilots to get hands-on with more than buttons and switches.
Always a well-prepared interviewer, Stewart focused on the military mission of UAV because that is their most visible mission. Cummings countered with civilian and humanitarian missions. One she is working on for the Navy is a rescue helicopter that those in need can summon to their remote location with a smart phone. Stewart was understandably skeptical, until Cummings told him about the Navy’s Cargo Resupply Unmanned Aerial System. Shown above, the K-Max helo has delivered cargo to remotest Afghanistan by the millions of tons.
Earning a math degree at the U.S. Naval Academy, a master’s in space systems engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School, and a doctorate in systems engineering from the University of Virginia, Cummings is the director of MIT’s Humans and Automation Lab. Followed by related subjects, her primary research focuses on human interaction with autonomous vehicle systems, which is why she was promoting NOVA’s latest show, Rise of the Drones.
In presenting the state of UAV art, the program focused on the military, which historically has been the source of most aeronautical innovations. The most startling comment was, perhaps, the most subtle. In assessing the technology that makes it work, an expert in the field compared today’s UAV’s to biplanes after World War I. Aviation made tremendous advances during the interstitial peace before it made another exponential leap during the next conflict. Now, look at UAVs in the accelerated digital world where conflict has been a decade-long constant.
Periodic pilot shortages are a topic that seem immortal, even though the last real shortage happened after December 7, 1941. But maybe those predicting tomorrow’s shortage are half right. There may well be a shortage of qualified pilots…for UAV. (Tell me you didn’t see that coming!). Again, NOVA supported this idea by reporting that the US Air Force now trains more pilots for UAVs than it does for manned aircraft. More telling is that within 10 years the Air Force fully expects UAVs to comprise more than a third of their fleets of bombers and strike-fighter fleets.
If this comes to pass on schedule, it will surely deflate the civilian pilot shortage. As it was for several decades after World War II, military trained pilots dominated civilian commercial cockpits. Adapting for time and technology, what goes around comes around when it comes to commercial UAV cubicles. Time will surely tell. –Scott Spangler, Editor